Back Treasures of the Orient: Goechala

Treasures of the Orient: Goechala

In the northeastern corner of India lies the beautiful mountain state – Sikkim. At the border of Sikkim and Nepal lies a familiar ice wall, touching the skies at 28,000 feet. The locals consider it as a holy mountain since it forms the belly of the Sleeping Buddha. Owing its proximity from the sea of Bay of Bengal, this area receives very high rainfall and thus the ecosystem and landscape of the eastern Himalayas is a stark contrast to other Himalayan regions in India. Home to dense forests, colourful birds and tall mountains it seems God has gifted this region with abundance of natural beauty.

Our trek began from the nice and quiet hill station of Yuksum. Yuksum is the farthest town that can be travelled by road in West Sikkim and lies approx. 160 km from Siliguri, the nearest rail station and airport. Away from the busy and chaotic city of Siliguri, people here live a simple life among cardamom plantations, colorful prayer flags and sacred monasteries. Yuksum was the earlier capital of Sikkim and was the home of the erstwhile King of Sikkim. It was this place where three Buddhist monks arrived from different places and coronated the first King of Sikkim. Hence in local language Yuksum means the meeting point of three Lamas.

I reached Yuksum at 8 in the night after a grueling journey on roads battered with landslides and rain. Here I met with my fellow trek mates.
There was Mukund and Darshak from Pune and Mumbai.
We were lucky to have in our group an experienced doctor, RishiPal who was 63 years old. But for him age seemed like a number since he carried a childlike enthusiasm of taking photos everywhere with his iPhone.

Group photo – from left – Mukund, Rishipal, Darshak and me

Then we were joined with our trek lead Nitin, accompanied with Buddha Ram, our local guide and cook and two more support staff.

Day 1: Yuksum to Sachen
I woke up to the bright sunshine the next day. When I checked my watch it was still 7 am in morning, which reminded me of early sunrise in eastern India. My trek mates were already up before me and were almost packed and ready for the trek.
Soon breakfast followed and were were also joined by Lisa and Jamie. Lisa was a Indo-American settled in the US, while Jamie was from the UK. They had reached the base with us but could not start the trek with us since foreigner trek permit takes time. Our trek lead introduced his team and briefed us. He mentioned that one may be director or VP in a company at workplace but in mountains everyone is equal and none of us should be egoistic and overconfident and thus like a small happy family we started our journey into the wilderness.
Bearing in mind the words of our trek lead, I started walking. The trail started right beside our guesthouse. It was stony and initially it passed through numerous village houses which were decorated with colourful prayer flags and beautiful flower plants. Soon we arrived at the edge of gorge and could hear a stream beneath us. There was a hanging bridge over the stream and we saw a check post across the bridge with the words ” WELCOME TO KHANGCHENDZONGA NATIONAL PARK” etched on it. We had entered in the holy abode of Mt. Kanchenjunga and the densest forest in the Himalayan foothills.

Checkpost of Kangchenjunga National park

After clicking few shots we continued walking. The trail was well marked with stones with multiple ascents and descents. There were multiple streams along our way which provided us with necessary drinking water. Soon we arrived at Sachen our first camp site. It was perched on a small forest clearing surrounded by tall canopy of trees. Our trek lead told us to be careful of leeches and insects at this place but luckily we couldn’t find any. Later in the evening as darkness enveloped us, the sounds of birds were replaced with insect buzz and after having a hearty meal, we fell asleep.

Day 2: Sachen to Tshoka
The morning rays of sun filtered through tall trees and reached our tents. It also woke up numerous birds in the forest who continued chirping in full glory, but we were not able to spot any of them due to the thick jungle around. It seemed that we were like the audience in an orchestra  concert of nature.
We decided to start our day early to avoid the crowd of other trekking groups and it was also possible because of our small group of four. After a steep descent we reached a hanging bridge over a 100 feet deep gorge of the Prek-chu river making a thunderous sound. It would be this river which we will be following till its source high up among the glaciers in the big mountains. The bridge was decorated with beautiful prayer flags flitting with the wind. It is a belief in Buddhism that as these flags flutter, prayers written on flags flows with the wind making the atmosphere holy and serene.

Hanging bridge with prayer flags

After the bridge crossing a steep climb ensued. Our trek lead warned us against the shortcuts since few years back some trekkers were lost in this jungle. As we continued gaining altitude the forests started clearing off. After around a hour of climb we reached the tea house of Bhakim. It was a deserved rest point since it offers a beautiful view of the valley. Hot ginger tea with such nice views made me forget of the tiring climb.

Tea house at Bhakim

After a brief rest, we climbed further upwards. We came across several huts and a deserted house with a large crack in it – a reminder of the devastating earthquake in 2015. Soon the dense forest trees were replaced with tall magnolia trees and pine trees. Somewhere in the forest clearing we saw a beautiful magpie playing with a ball of grass.

Yellow beak magpie

Finally. we reached Tshoka. It was a beautiful open campsite, a welcome change from the forest campsite of Sachen. Overlooking the meadow, one can see the snow capped peak of Mt. Pandim, but unfortunately for us, it was covered under the clouds when we reached the campsite. Our trek lead asked us not to sleep within our tents during the day. We explored the nearby monastery near the campsite situated near a small lake. Tibetan Buddhists believe that long and hard journeys to reach the holy place will purify them of sins. Maybe it is the reason of a monastery built so far away from civilization.

Tshoka Campsite

Morning view at Tshoka

Day 3: Tshoka to Dzongri
Today was the most strenuous climbing day of the entire trek. We had to gain a height of 3300 feet in a single day and hence entire trail would be a steep upward climb. As we climbed above Tshoka, a thick fog enveloped us and soon we entered in the realm of Rhododendron forests. Since it was spring, trees were in full bloom with red, white and pink flowers. Thick layers of moss painted the ground and branches of trees in shades of green and red. Our guide had instructed us to carry sufficient water since there would be no water source for the entire trek. This also made my bag heavier then the earlier days.

Rhododendron trail

After a steep climb, we reached a Phedang, a clearing in the forest. Here we had our lunch. Buddha Ram our guide also managed to bring hot coffee in a flask. It provided us with renewed energy to cover the remaining long ascent. We thought of climbing this part very slowly but with almost no breaks in between.

Haunted house at Phedang

After two hours of steep climb, we reached another rest point – Deorali. We heaved a sigh of relief when our trek lead mentioned that the climb of the day is over. As we moved forward, we saw first signs of snow patches under the Rhododendron trees. These were frozen water sources and at places, the snow was hard and slippery. As we moved forward, the thick Rhododendron forest got replaced with small juniper shrubs. So quickly the landscape changes in the mountains. Finally to our relief we saw board of Dzongri campsite signalling the end of the trek for the day.
With only two more groups of trekkers camping along with us, Dzongri turned out to be much more peaceful compared to other sites. Our trek lead warned that many trekkers face problems related to AMS at Dzongri because of the strenuous climb, so we made a point to keep our selves hydrated and not sleep in tent during the day. We were exploring the campsite, when Rishipal spotted a colorful Himalayan Monal. Darshak equipped with a potrait lens managed to beautifully capture it. He was so excited that the cold didn’t seem to bother him and thought of capturing other birds near the area as well and started flaunting them within our group. Just before nightfall the weather started to worsen and it grew colder. Suddenly we experienced light snowfall much to the excitement of all trekkers. Our trek lead asked us to sleep early since tomorrow we will have to wake up 3:30 AM in the morning. So saying Goodnight rather early at 7, we fell asleep one by one.

Dzongri campsite

Day 4 – Rest day and Dzongri top

Wake-up call from Buddha Ram and Nitin woke us up early at 3:30am. We were greeted with cold breeze and it was pitch dark everywhere, however there were almost no clouds around. Quickly we got ready and started climbing the steep trail to reach the Dzongri top. Tiny beacons of flashlights from fellow trekkers trailed behind me as I kept climbing. It reminded me of my thrilling Stok Kangri experience last year. After a climb of around 45 minutes one by one huge tall gigantic peaks started appearing one by one. I felt like a small child standing on shoulders of giants.
At front was Black peak. Its rock formation is such that snow never forms on it. The locals call it the protector of all other mountains in the range. Behind we saw Rathong peak, Kabru group of peaks, Mt. Pandim in its entirety and Mt. Tienchen Kang. Just behind this group was Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world seemed to look down down upon other mountains from its abode within the clouds. Slowly the clouds engulfed Mt. Kanchenjunga and we saw the first rays of sun lighting up the Kabru group of peaks. Standing there in the group of huge peaks, it was an overwhelming moment.

View from Dzongri top

As the clouds started to appear, we started our journey back. It was a rest day for us but the weather was unforgiving. It was cloudy and cold. I dozed off for an hour after lunch to complete my sleep. Our guide Buddha Ram took us for a small walk in the nearby forest with the promise of bird spotting. But soon it turned foggy so we came back to our tents. As the evening bore down upon us, our next trekking group reached Dzongri. It was a much larger group compared to us. The rest of the day passed by chit-chatting with them and sharing our morning experience.

Blood Pigeon- The state bird of Sikkim

Day 5 – Dzongri to Thansing
After having a hearty breakfast we started our quest further to Goechala. Many trekking groups return from this point since Goechala is a pretty long trek. The weather was still cloudy. At moments it seemed to clear up and then again from nowhere the fog used to engulf us reducing the visibility to almost zero. The shrubs gave way to huge grasslands but we were not able to admire the beauty of the trail due to foggy weather. Our trek lead asked us to stay together since many trekkers loose their way in the fog. From somewhere a golden Himalayan dog started to follow us and lead our path. I offered him some biscuits but it refused my kind offering. Maybe it is used to hunt and eat meat in these jungles. Normally in such trails they remain with the trekkers for few hours, but this dog stayed with us for next three days.

Our Companion for next few days

After a steep descent, through Rhododendron forests, the sound of the river grew louder. Soon we reached the banks of the river Prek-chu at Kokchurang. From there again a steep ascent followed. The trail initially was through a forest with beautiful stream passing by. As we gained altitude, it started snowing again and soon we reached the flat green open meadows of Thansing.

Beautiful Kokchurang

As the day passed by, the snowing intensified. and within two hours the green meadows transformed to complete milky white. Rather than sitting inside tents, we explored the nearby area. Huge piles of snow rested on the forest leaves and branches. We were transferred to a different world altogether. In the midst of snowfall, I joined a game of Frisbee with local staffs from other trek groups. It was truly a great way to enjoy the snowfall. Soon the clouds cleared and we could see Mt. Pandim rising up right from the place where we camped. It will remain in my memories among the beautiful sites I have visited till date.

Thansing in snow

Yak – Beast of the mountains

After a tired day and a heavy dinner, we were lulled to sleep by the clanking of yak bells and the soft roar of Prek-chu river flowing by. I woke up in the middle of the night for a nature call and the view was mesmerizing. Stars appeared on the sky – a rare sight in our entire trek due to cloudy weather. The snow on the field and the nearby peaks were glowing white in the moonlit night and far away the mighty Kanchenjunga shined like a beacon of light. In fact I didn’t even require a torch to roam around the place. I soaked myself in the beauty for few moments but then it struck me of the intense next few days of the trek so I quickly turned back inside the hut and cuddled inside the cozy sleeping bag.

Day 6: Thansing to Lamuney
It was the most easiest day of the trek. We started leisurely at 9 from our camp since Lamuney was only two hours away. We trekked on the lap of Mt. Pandim approaching a wall of loose rock and boulders. As we approached Lamuney, it started to rain and snow again. Lamuney was a windy campsite. With the passing of the day, snowfall intensified and dark clouds appeared from the valley below. It was difficult to venture out since bits of snow were hitting hard against my face. Hence we gathered in the kitchen hut, eagerly anticipating any hot meal. Our guide Buddha Ram cooked a delicious meal while singing happily and it seemed the cold didn’t even bother him. As we made our bed, we heard the sound of thunder which seemed surprisingly close.

Day 7: Lamuney to Kokchurang via Goechala (view point 1)

“Parag, Wake up”, shouted Darshak as I scrambled out of my tent with a day pack for summit walk at 2:15 AM. To my surprise the storm had mellowed down and our frost laden tents were fluttering with the gentle breeze that was blowing now. Stars shone up in the sky as the valley bathed in faint moonlight through the clouds. Our guide carried a huge kitchen torch and led the way in front of all the groups that were attempting for the summit on that day. Soon we reached Samiti lake. It was dark everywhere and we could only hear the shimmering sound of its waters. On directing the headlamp, it looked like a black hole in middle of nowhere.
As we continued in silence, we could see the gleaming Fork peak far away. As we climbed higher the Kabru mountains glowing in moonlight appeared to our right. They stood there like sentinels in twilight. As we glanced back, we saw a dense cloud approaching us. It had already blocked the view of Samiti lake below us. Fearful that the fog will block the view in front, we sped up and almost started running towards the summit point. Just as we were around 20 minutes away, the clouds enveloped us. Disappointed, we reached the summit in wee hours of the morning. Truly, we are no match against the forces of nature.

Peaks glowing in twilight

We waited in the summit for sometime hoping for the clouds to clear up. There was a board preventing tourists to venture further. It seems snow leopards are spotted on camera traps further ahead and the forest officials banned tourists so that their breeding ground remains undisturbed. As we were sipping coffee at the summit, suddenly the clouds started to clear up. One by one the peaks emerged – Fork Peak, Mt. Thalung and finally Mt. Kanchenjunga. Behind us Mt. Pandim streched high up in the sky touching the clouds above. I felt a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

View of Mt. Kanchenjunga from summit

As we started descending down, we got an aerial view of Samiti lake nestled among the mountains. A yellow duck was swimming in the entire lake alone peacefully as we watched the reflection of snow capped peaks on the turquoise colored water of the lake. Flakes of snow were swirling in the breeze as we had our breakfast beside the lake.

Samiti Lake

As we were packing our bags at Lamuney, our guide pointed at a small group of blue sheep grazing in the opposite hill slopes. On descending further down, we met our next batch who were very eager to know about our experience on the summit. After spending some time with them, we bid farewell, wished them good luck and continued our journey down.

Himalayan fauna

Day 8: Kokchurang to Tshoka

The trail from Kokchurang to Tshoka bypasses Dzongri and reached Tshoka via Phedang. It passes though a jungle, so dense that horses and yaks have to take an alternate trail. We started early at 6:30am with the hope of spotting birds in the trail. It was truly a romantic trail devoid of disturbance from the mules and yaks as I kept on walking silently singing in my head. A blood pigeon suddenly flew across me and I spotted another one singing happily on a tree.

Heralds of monsoon

As we started from Phedang towards Tshoka, it started raining again. This made the trail muddied and slippery making it difficult to descend. It seemed, many more flowers bloomed in the jungle from the time we ascended on the trail. As we reached Tshoka, the rainfall intensified implying the start of monsoon season.

It rained incessantly for the rest of day, so we secluded ourselves within tents. I sat with a small group of three Bengali trekkers, who constantly pulled each other’s legs. It was real fun to hear their personal stories. Soon it was dinner time. Our staff decorated the table inside the trekkers hut with candles, which truly felt romantic. They had also prepared a beautiful cake with “Happy Trek 2018” written on it. It was truly admirable how they took care of us and did everything they can to ensure that our journey becomes as smooth as possible.

Our support staff- who made the journey possible

Farewell celebration cake

Day 9: Tshoka to Yuksum

It was the same trail which we climbed during the start of the trail, but somewhere I felt different. The initial excitement to explore further up when I was climbing the trail replaced with a sense of melancholy of leaving the mountains. I was taking down with me many memories and aspirations. I aspired to remain happy like our guide Buddha Ram in face of any adversity, I dreamt of remaining fit like Dr. Rishipal who in-spite of his age completed the entire trek in style and I aspired to remain humble like a Sherpa – people who truly understand that how insignificant we are in the presence of mountains.
P.S- Pic credits goes to all members in our trek group
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